College Literature 30.4 (2003) 183-186
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Sirc, Geoffrey. 2002. English Composition as a Happening. Logan: Utah State University Press. $26.95 hc. 328 pp.
More than ten years ago, the late James Berlin—a leading advocate of a cultural studies approach to composition and an outspoken opponent of expressivism—remarked to me that what we have come to know as expressivist theories in composition are only a small part of a much wider experimentation, some of which was overtly political, in the late 60s and early 70s. When I began reading Geoffrey Sirc's English Composition as a Happening, I was hoping to learn more about that range of experiment. However, while there is much discussion of the avant garde traditions in the visual arts that produced "happenings" in the 1960s, and about work in composition that Sirc connects to these traditions, there is almost nothing about overtly political experiments in composition or about the social forces of the 1960s that informed the context in which teachers such as Ken Macrorie and William Coles developed an alternative to academic discourse. Sirc's book is offbeat, eccentric, and not all that reader-friendly to scholars who are not particularly interested in aesthetic debates in the visual arts. Nevertheless, for all its quirkiness, Sirc's book is too interesting to ignore.
Attempting to recover some of the work in rhetoric and composition in the 1960s that paralleled avant garde movements in the visual arts, Sirc questions why these experiments were cut off in favor of what he considers a more traditional modernism that locates composition within models of academic [End Page 183] discourse. Sirc grounds his ideas about college writing instruction in theories and practices from the arts, including the multimedia "happenings" of Robert Raucshenberg, the aesthetics of action painters such as Jackson Pollock, and the anti-modernism of Marcel Duchamp. In rethinking the teaching of college writing, Sirc rejects rhetoric, with its emphasis on the public text, in favor of composition. Here, Sirc's paradigm is not found in textual practices, but in the composing process of Jackson Pollack. Discussing Pollack's influence by the Mexican mural painter David Alfaro Siqueiros and his rejection of Thomas Hart Benton's "traditional academicism" (2002, 98), Sirc notes:
one night, in 1936, he put a canvas on the floor and tried to replicate the dripped technique of the muralist. What Jackson learned in such personal study was the cynical truth of traditional composition, that it's all about teaching the correct line at the expense of the right line. Jackson became a real compositionist only when he began to follow his heart: discovering he had a voice and vision worth sharing, then realizing he had to abandon his struggle for the correct line and embark on the search for a personally useful and perfectible line to perfect his inner vision. (Sirc 2002, 99)
In Pollack, Sirc finds an aesthetic which parallels Macrorie's attack on the dullness of academic writing, which presented a road-not-taken that Sirc believes would have been preferable to both the formulaic expressivism and the teaching of academic discourse in contemporary rhetoric and composition. Thus, Duchamp's rejection of the academic modernism of the museum is analogous, according to Sirc, to his own rejection of the "museum" of composition's canon. Rather than accept the conventional wisdom of composition scholars that we are in a "post-process" age, Sirc asks:
Oh, post-what-became-that-silly-CCCC process, definitely. But post-Jackson's process? Post-the scrupulous exploration of available technologies? Post-the openness to non-standard materials? Post-the intrepid faith in the personally right line over the academically correct line? Post a process (like my own, and most of my students' as well) suffused with equal parts ambition and uncertainty? (Sirc 2002, 119)
Advocating a return to a more complex theory of process, Sirc attacks the idea that composition should initiate students to academic discourse. For Sirc, composition texts such as David Bartholomae's and Anthony Petrosky's Ways of Reading (Boston: St. Martin's, 1990), which invite students...